Shut Out of The Military: More than one in five recent high school graduates is not academically qualified to enlist in the U.S. Army

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First-Ever Public Analysis of National and State Data From the U.S. Armed Forces’ Entrance Exam Shows That Today’s High School Education Doesn’t Necessarily Prepare Graduates for Today’s Army

Publication date: 
December 20 2010

WASHINGTON (December 21, 2010) – Too few of our nation’s recent high school graduates – particularly young people of color – have the math, reading, science and problem-solving skills necessary for enlistment in the U.S. Army, according to a study released today by The Education Trust. This report is the first-ever public analysis of data from the Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), the test that determines if applicants qualify to enlist in the military.

According to the report, “Shut Out of the Military”:

  • More than one in five young people do not meet the minimum standard required for Army enlistment, as measured by the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) comprised of four academic subtests of the ASVAB.
  • Among applicants of color, the ineligibility rates are even higher: 29 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of African Americans are ineligible, based on their AFQT scores.
  • Minority candidates who do gain entry do so, on average, with lower scores than do their white peers. This excludes many of them from higher level educational, training and advancement opportunities offered by the U.S. Armed Forces.

The ASVAB is the most widely used multiple-aptitude test battery in the world, assessing abilities for the full range of occupations available throughout the military. Because those jobs closely mirror occupations available in the civilian workforce, young people who fall short on the ASVAB are likely unprepared for many civilian jobs, too.

“Too many of us, including educators, have comforted ourselves with the notion that kids who aren’t ready for college can find a place in the armed services. These findings shatter that myth and strip away the illusion of opportunity available to underprepared students,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “Our economy, our democracy and our national security demand much more than our schools are delivering now. The question is when we will step up to ensure that all of our students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to be ready to take on any challenge they – and the nation – may face.” 

Using data from the nearly 350,000 high school graduates aged 17-20 who took the ASVAB between 2004 and 2009 to qualify for enlistment in the U.S. Army, the report sheds light on national and state-by-state performance on ASVAB, both overall and by racial and ethnic subgroups.
Though the sample is self-selected, rather than representative, state-to-state comparisons reveal vast differences in performance. The states in which more than 30 percent of applicants scored too low to enlist were Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, D.C. In Idaho, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming, on the other hand, the rate of ineligibility among Army hopefuls was less than 15 percent.

Roughly speaking, states with greater numbers of minority applicants had higher overall rates of ineligibility, but there often are striking differences between groups within the same state. In Illinois, for example, 24 percent of the state’s nearly 12,000 ASVAB test-takers were not eligible for enlistment. However, ineligibility rates among Illinois’ young people of color were significantly higher than those of their white peers: 41 percent of African Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics were ineligible whereas 16 percent of white applicants were ineligible.

Differences also exist between states. In New York, for example, the ineligibility rate among African-American applicants was 29 percent. Yet the ineligibility rates among African-American high school graduates in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin were even higher, ranging from 41 percent to over 47 percent. 

And in Massachusetts, 40 percent of Hispanics were ineligible for enlistment, close to twice the failure rate among Hispanic applicants from Georgia and North Carolina. Indeed, Hispanic students in those two states had similar rates of qualification to white applicants in Vermont.

“Report after report from national and international assessments demonstrates patterns of student learning similar to those we found on the ASVAB: overall performance that is low, and particularly dismal results for young people of color. Taken together, these data strongly suggest that our K-12 education systems are not meeting the needs of our students nor those of the nation as a whole,” said Christina Theokas, author of the report and director of research at The Education Trust. “How many studies will it take, or how poor do the results have to be, before we act decisively?”

Other state findings from the Ed Trust report include:

  • In five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin – the ineligibility rates among African-American test-takers were at least five percentage points above the national average for African Americans.
  • In Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, ineligibility rates among Hispanic applicants were similarly higher than the national average for Hispanics.
  • Ineligibility rates also vary by state for white test-takers from a low of about 10 percent in Indiana to a high of 27 percent in Maryland.

But earning a qualifying score is only a first step. For enlistees, the higher the score, the more options available. Highly skilled jobs, such as those in technical fields, require above-average scores on the AFQT and on the relevant subtests. High-scoring enlistees may qualify for additional education, training and skills development, providing access to higher level career paths and active-duty pay, and ultimately more opportunities for success in civilian life after their service is completed.

Among those who enlisted, over 43 percent of white recruits scored in the top two categories on the AFQT, providing them with the greatest choice of careers within the Army. Meanwhile, fewer than 25 percent of Hispanic enlistees scored in this range, and fewer than 18 percent of African-American enlistees were similarly qualified. 

“The tragic irony here is that the desire of so many young people to serve our nation is being thwarted by our nation’s refusal to serve them well in school,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of The Education Trust. “As a country, we have to find the will to give them as much as they are willing to give to us.”

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